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Court-martial of ex-AFRL commander would be 'unprecedented,' advocate says

U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. William T. Cooley, then-commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory, delivers remarks at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, on April 18, 2019.

WESLEY FARNSWORTH/U.S. AIR FORCE

By THOMAS GNAU | Dayton Daily News | Published: November 11, 2020

DAYTON, Ohio (Tribune News Service) — If a court-martial proceeds against former Air Force Research Lab commander Maj. Gen. William Cooley, it would be the first time a case involving an Air Force general has gone to court-martial, according to the president of Protect Our Defenders, an organization which advocates for victims of sexual assault in the military.

Cooley, who was fired in January as commander of the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, faces a sexual assault charge in a military proceeding that's analogous to a civilian grand jury proceeding.

The case is not set to go to the court-martial stage yet. After an investigation by the Office of Special Investigations (OSI), a charge and three specifications of violating Article 120 of the Uniform Code of Military were brought against Cooley. Article 120 concerns sexual assault.

An Article 32 preliminary hearing will convene on Jan. 27, 2021, in which a military judge will review the charge against Cooley, Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC) said Tuesday.

Don Christensen, a former chief prosecutor for the Air Force and the president of the group Protect Our Defenders, told the Dayton Daily News that if Cooley goes to court-martial, he will be the first general officer in Air Force history to do so.

"An Air Force general has never been court-martialed," Christensen said. "It's a big deal that they're doing this."

"What it tells me is that the investigation has shown that the evidence is really strong, that he committed this offense," he added.

Ten to fifteen years ago, a case like this might have resulted in a senior officer being encouraged to retire and leave the Air Force, Christensen said. In today's landscape, the Air Force is compelled to take these allegations seriously, he said.

"I think it's a combination," he said. "I think the evidence must be strong, and I think in today's cultural environment — especially after Vanessa Guillén's murder, and the 'me too' movement, finally made its way to the military — I think they can no longer discount strong evidence just because someone is a senior officer."

Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen was a Fort Hood soldier who disappeared in April. Her remains were found in late June and another soldier fatally shot himself before a federal complaint against him in the case was made public.

Attorney Dan Conway, who represents Cooley, told the Dayton Daily News that OSI recovered voicemail recordings from Cooley's accuser that he believes support his client's case. Conway says the voicemails indicate that the accuser was "stunned but flattered by what happened," by what Conway and Cooley say was a consensual kiss earlier that evening.

According to the Air Force charge, the alleged kiss happened in Albuquerque, N.M., in August 2018.

Conway said there was no unwanted touching. This matter should not go to a court-martial, or the military equivalent of a trial, he said.

"This is not the case to seek precedent on, because the evidence is so weak," he said.

Ryan Guilds, who is counsel for the accuser, issued a statement saying: "The victim does not intend to try this case in the media. She knows what happened, what the accused did, and she looks forward to seeing the truth come out. Make no mistake, it is not easy for a victim to come forward and face immediate character assassinations in the press from the defendant's high-priced lawyer. But she is strong, and in the end the truth will confirm her bravery and the righteousness of her actions."

The Dayton Daily News does not publish the name of complainants or accusers in sexual assault cases.

Cooley has cooperated with OSI "completely," Conway said.

"The evidence in the OSI investigation is very clear that this was a consensual kiss and nothing more," he said.

"There is a reason that general officers have not historically been charged," Conway added. "Because for decades of their career, they're screened for their high character. General-grade officers are confirmed by the Senate. These people who are confirmed general-grade officers are cut from the finest cloth."

Conway said he doesn't believe Cooley is working at Wright-Patterson at the moment. Since his firing, Cooley has served as special assistant to AFMC Commander Gen. Arnold Bunch, with duties focused on advancing the command's digital campaign, the command said.

Both AFRL and AFMC are based at Wright-Patterson.

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